Just for the record: Softly falls the American nightmare

Lifestyle

Just for the record: Softly falls the American nightmare

A fortnightly review of music on vinyl

Andrew Donaldson

One critic has described the sound of the new Lana Del Rey album as “a mellow soft rock”, which, simplistic as it may be, is fair enough: that’s what it does sound like – baroque piano ballads, muted electronica with folky flourishes, hushed lullabies and love songs washed in strings and synths. But the title alone suggests there is more to Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor/Interscope Records), one of the year’s most interesting new releases, than a lush elegance. This is as meticulous, as lacerating and as complex an unpicking of the American Dream as any artistic endeavour this side of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

In West’s 1939 novel, Hollywood is a place where desperation for success and happiness boils over into rage as a film premiere degenerates into mob violence. In Del Rey’s music, dubbed more accurately “Hollywood sadcore”, she draws on 1950s and 1960s Americana to give us glimpses of the failed dreamers who continue to populate that southern Californian landscape: for all the sunshine, it’s a place of dark interiors, like a painting by the Norman Rockwell of the title – but done by David Lynch. 

Rockwell was a supreme propagandist. For more than 50 years his idyllic images of a white picket fenced America and its history adorned the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, a widely circulated magazine aimed squarely at the US middle classes. Del Rey, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant, now subverts the comfort and simplicity of his imagery by planting a curse in his name, suggesting both enthusiasm and disdain. Ever the millennial troubadour, she has even directed and released a neatly postmodern “trailer” for the album in which her iconoclastic ambitions are unequivocally bared...

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